The Whole Gritty City is a 90-minute documentary that plunges viewers into the world of three New Orleans school marching bands. The film follows kids growing up in America's most musical city, and one of its most dangerous, as their band directors get them ready to perform in the Mardi Gras parades, and teach them to succeed and to survive. Navigating the urban minefield through moments of setback, loss, discovery, and triumph, these children and their adult leaders reveal the power and resilience of a culture.
The film features three marching bands in the years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city: the O. Perry Walker and L.E. Rabouin high school bands., and The Roots of Music, a new band for middle school-age children. These young beginners in Roots are put through their paces by the program's founder Derrick Tabb, drummer for the Grammy Award-winning Rebirth Brass Band.
As Mardi Gras approaches and the young musicians progress, the film focuses on a few of these kids. Partly through video they create with portable cameras, we discover their passions and quirks, their personal struggles and tragedies. We come to see the powerful positive role being in the band plays in their lives. 11-year-old Bear, determined to master the trumpet, lives in the shadow of an older brother murdered at age 19. 18-year-old drum major Skully shouts out to loved ones he's lost to violence, including the band director who was a father figure. 12-year-old Jazz aspires to be a musician like her father, even as her mother struggles to provide for the family.
Along with their bandmates these kids enter into the rigors and glory of marching in Mardi Gras parades in front of thousands of cheering spectators. The film culminates in a different kind of musical performance: a moving funeral tribute by band members from across the city to a young man who was one of their own.
This New Orleans marching band story is at the same time a unique portrayal of an American inner city. It highlights men with an open-eyed, deep commitment to the community they've grown up in and the children in their charge. Viewers who know first-hand the African American urban experience will find a celebration of the strength and insight of these men, and the potential and resilience of their students. Others will find a moving, empathetic portrayal of an unfamiliar world, and come to feel a stake in the struggles and triumphs of these children and their mentors.
In February 2014 the film aired nationally on CBS on "48 Hours Presents: THE WHOLE GRITTY CITY", a 2-hour special hosted by jazz great Wynton Marsalis.
"This moving documentary ...follows several young musicians in verité style as they're coached by inspiring band leaders to participate in the Mardi Gras parade festivities." - Matt Roush, TV Guide
"A documentary in the Fred Wiseman mold...sensitive, intelligent and inspirational." - David Biancullii, "Fresh Air", NPR
"At once heartbreaking and hopeful." - Los Angeles Times
"A celebratory film...and a very emotional one, an at-times heartbreaking portrait of our at-times heartbreaking city." - Mike Scott, New Orleans Times Picayune
"Champions what the American urban experience offers us all in terms of culture, community and ultimately, meaning....Gritty City is glorious." - David Simon, creator of HBO's The Wire and Treme
“It’s a testament to the skill of filmmakers Richard Barber and Andre Lambertson — but even more so to the poignant soulfulness of the children featured — that the kids outperform even the famously charismatic adult band directors.” - Sarah Carr, The Hechinger Report
THE ROOTS OF MUSIC CRUSADERS
"I'm competing with the drug dealers" - Derrick Tabb
A roomful of 9-14 year-olds in The Roots of Music, the city's newest band, beat our rhythms on tables, still waiting for drums to arrive. Horn players barely coax sounds from instruments completely new to them. They all look up with respect, love, and a little fear, to the new program's founder, Derrick Tabb, the drummer from the legendary Rebirth Brass Band. Tabb had once been an angry kid on a downward spiral until his own middle school band director set him on a new course.
11-year old Bear is intent on mastering his new trumpet as a section leader in The Roots of Music. The realities of the streets loom large in Bear's life: in the blocks he avoids, the corners he flees at the sound of gunshots, in the photo of his brother, shot dead a year and a half ago at age 19.
THE L.E. RABOUIN HIGH SCHOOL MARCHING BAND
"This ain't no make believe. You all know struggle. Everybody's struggling". - Lonzie Jackson
Lonzie Jackson, the new director of The L.E. Rabouin High School Marching Band is transforming the band room into an oasis of order in a chaotic school.
"Some of the best people come from the hood....A lot of people who come from the gutter rise up and do bigger and better things with their lives. And that's real". - Kirk
In 16-year-old Kirk's struggle with his temper and the need to act tough, music sustains him: when he's not playing tuba in the Rabouin band he's at church where he performs impassioned mime dancing to gospel songs.
18-year-old Rabouin drum major Skully keeps a video camera close at hand, giving us a glimpse of his life outside of band, giving a shout-out to loved ones who have been killed, including "Mr. Shavers, the man who made it possible for me to be a drum major". As Skully leads the band in the parades, foremost in his mind is the musician who started the band, and then was murdered before he ever got to see his students play their instruments.
THE O. PERRY WALKER HIGH SCHOOL MARCHING BAND
"It's hard to get the hood out of them. Because as soon as he hits that block, he's got to get hood again". - Wilbert Rawlins Jr.
Leading The O. Perry Walker High School Band is Wilbert Rawlins, a 6'4" gold-toothed powerhouse, driven to keep up his reputation as the best band director in the city. Rawlins credits his own band director with saving him from the fates of his seven closest childhood friends, all lost to murder and drugs.
Rawlins steered his former drum major Brandon away from trouble and into college. Now he's hiring him as his assistant, hoping he'll carry on his legacy.